How I Got Here: I was looking for a light read after Outlander (not too many characters, setting, politics, plot twists), and needed to read this for a task in the Fall Reading Challenge. I also really love Magical Realism, especially when it relates to food.
The Book: Here is Goodreads’ synopsis:
On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein bites into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the slice. To her horror, she finds that her cheerful mother tastes of despair. Soon, she’s privy to the secret knowledge that most families keep hidden: her father’s detachment, her mother’s transgression, her brother’s increasing retreat from the world. But there are some family secrets that even her cursed taste buds can’t discern.
My additions to this synopsis: Rose can taste the emotions of anyone who has prepared her food, which upsets her both physically and mentally. Henceforth, she attempts to avoid foods that are not factory-made (not created by humans). She also goes on to learn that the other members of her family also have some otherworldly abilities related to other senses. Overall, Rose (and the reader) learns how to cope with somewhat typical family dysfunctions that are made known through atypical sources.
My Analysis and Critique: I enjoyed this book. It met the needs I had at the time, as a break from epic fantasy and plot twists. However, if you are looking for book that offers a good feeling at the end, this isn’t the book for you. It felt incomplete.
I feel that to understand this book, one really needs to consider what Bender’s purpose was. If it was to tell a story about a dysfunctional family that struggles to find happiness through different mediums (eating processed foods, disappearing, adulterous affairs, running), then Bender has succeeded. However, the book has been marketed as a story about a girl who struggles with this magical ability to taste emotions in the food she eats. This story isn’t told, or at least, it isn’t explored and resolved.
Most reviews of this novel express frustration with the incompleteness of the novel. Why the members of this family have magical abilities is never explained. I’m okay with this. However, it truly did feel as if Bender created some plot lines that are never resolved. She sets up a romantic plot line between the Rose and another main character that just stops. That was a bummer. Also, Bender starts to explore the possibilities of Rose’s food-tasting abilities, but at the end, readers are still never quite sure what those may be. In addition, there is an inordinate amount of time spent on Rose’s brother, Joseph, and his abilities, and the reader is left wondering “What about Rose?”. Joseph gets closure, why not Rose?
In the end, this story may best be summed up as a tease. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a tease as it doesn’t tell the story it advertises. It is also a tease as it begins plot lines that never feel resolved. It’s a good read when you read it for tone: it demonstrates well the sadness and awkwardness associated with a family which hides its dysfunctions. Yet, if you’re looking for a clean plot, this story isn’t it.